Gender and the Law Prof Blog

Editor: Tracy A. Thomas
University of Akron School of Law

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Polka Dot Stockings as Contempt of Court

Part II in guest blogger Anne Wardell's series on Australian women lawyers.

After much debate the quota system idea was dropped and briefs continued to be sent based on the free will of the lawyers.  What I did not appreciate at the time of course was that the larger law firms tended to select which barristers they briefed based on the opinions of the partners, which of course were mostly men.  Occasionally they would experiment with a female barrister but she better win the case and be damned good with the clients. Of course this is a generalisation and many very good women barristers were briefed purely on merit. However many women barristers also practiced in family law which was viewed as a suitable area of the law for women.

I was an insolvency specialist and practiced in commercial law. This seemed to be a harder road to hoe for women at that time.  Often I would appear in the commercial lists and be one of only two women present. Interestingly I never experienced any sense of discrimination from the judges who treated all advocates the same.  I did however feel a great sense of indignation from the male barristers as to why I was appearing in a commercial matter.  I am sure times have now changed and this does not still exist.

I had been raised in a male-dominated family with three brothers and no sisters.  I was raised by a mother who had been taken out of school early because she was a girl.  She fought for my right to be educated and pursue whatever career I wanted.  I had decided in my teens that I wanted a career in law and was lucky enough to be able to achieve that.  At school and at home I was comfortable with the idea of being judged by merit and not given special treatment because I was a girl. 

I took this attitude with me into my early days as a lawyer. Perhaps it was the confidence of youth, but I was sure I could make my way based on my abilities and the fact I was female was not relevant.  At the time I did not believe I suffered any disadvantage because of my gender.

Looking back, with the benefit of age and experience, I can see that there was a different playing field in the 1980s for male law graduates and female law graduates.  I remember being asked in a job interview whether I intended to have children.  At the time I laughed it off as a silly question.  In fact most of us in our 20s were trying not to get pregnant.  A few years later I was told not to associate with the secretaries after work as it was not professional.  Again I did not think much of this and just complied. 

It did not seem to matter that the male partners were free to associate with the secretaries.  Women lawyers were required to dress in a certain way; no cleavage on display and no pants in court.  Some of my non-lawyer friends used to refer to women lawyers as ‘stick insects’ buttoned up from neck to
wrist. There was a famous incident at the time when a female lawyer was admonished in court by a judge because she had worn polka dot stockings in his court room. He may even have wanted to cite her for contempt of court, I can’t remember.  I do remember the controversy and heated debates it generated. I am embarrassed to admit that such was my conservatism at the time that I was not sure polka dot stockings were appropriate court attire.

At the time I did not care. I just wanted to practice law and do a good job for my clients.  I do remember questioning why the male partners used their secretaries to drop off their dry cleaning, buy their lunch or purchase presents for their wives. I do remember wondering why secretaries
preferred to work for the male lawyers and why they would find a simple request from a women lawyer difficult to complete.

Women lawyers were frequently labeled as ‘bitches’ by the female secretaries when asking for their work to be done in the same way as the male lawyers.  This did irritate me but I did not believe there was anything I could do to rectify this. It seemed to me that this was just the way of the world. Male partners were the norm and they could behave as they saw fit.

Anne Wardell is Deputy Editor in Chief of the CCH Law & Business team and co-administrator of the Law Chat blog. Previously, she was the National Director of Insolvency for the Australian Taxation Office and member of the Victorian Bar, specializing in insolvency and commercial law.

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